I am not an animal lover. They stink, make noise, and some have pea shaped poo. The zoo is my worst nightmare and I’ve never had a pet. Guess that doesn’t even make me an animal liker. Marie-Rosalie Bonheur made a living, and quite a name for herself, by being around animals. No, she wasn’t a zookeeper. She was a widely acclaimed animalière, or animal artist. She was a prominent artist in the 19th century who kicked the asses of her male counterparts with ease. Few females from this period are recognized for their artistic abilities, but Rosa established herself as one of the most original artists of the Realist tradition.
Marie-Rosalie Bonheur made her grand entrance on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France. She was one of four artistically inclined children. Her brother, Isidore Jules Bonheur, was an important animalière sculptor of the 19th century. Their father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, was a trained artist and devout socialist. Oscar was a major influence on Rosa, both socially and artistically. When Rosa was a child, Oscar-Raymond was involved with Saint-Simonians, a political group that advocated a form of socialism which pushed for equality between the sexes and the abolishment of class distinctions. Her father’s association with this group allowed Rosa to grow up liberated and free of gender norms. She was the only girl in an all boys’ private school and she dressed like a boy. Her usual attire as an adult was a short haircut accompanied by a waistcoat and trousers. On one occasion she wore a dress and was arrested by an officer who mistook her for a man dressed in women’s clothing.
“To [my father’s] doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”
Rosa’s appearance wasn’t the only man-ish thing about her. Her fascination with animals and the disgusting added to her tomboy nature. She found pleasure in dissecting animals to learn about their muscle and bone structure. She even enjoyed visiting slaughterhouses in Paris to observe the animals in their various states of processing.
Rosa began her official artistic training at the age of 13. She attempted boarding school and dress making before she finally decided to study under her father. Rosa got her start by copying engravings and plaster casts, drawing still-lifes, and later copying paintings of the masters in the Louvre. She submitted her first work to the Salon in 1841 at the age of 19.
In 1842, the Bonheurs moved to the Rue Rumford, an agricultural area of Paris that was close to farms, fields, and animals. Oscar deemed the copying the children were doing in Bordeaux insufficient. He wanted them to develop their talent through realistic drawing and painting. Rosa submitted her first sculpture, a terra-cotta of a Shorn Sheep Grazing, the same year the family relocated. Rosa’s relationship with the Salon was continuous throughout her career. By the age of 23, she had exhibited eighteen works at the Paris Salon. In 1848 she was given her first gold metal from the Salon for a sculpture. Sadly, Rosa rarely submitted sculptures after that because she did not want to overshadow the word of her brother.
In 1851 Rosa began to create works for the house of Goupil in Paris. It was during this same year that Rosa reached her peak as a painter. “The Horse Fair” took 18 months to complete. Rosa was 31 when she completed her most famous piece. People were impressed at its brilliance. No woman had ever created a work as beautiful, or an animal painting as large.
Although Rosa had immense fame in the United States, England, and the United Kingdom, she never gained respect in France. In 1859 she moved near the Forest of Fontainebleu. This location would be her final place of residence. Rosa continued to work on sketches, paintings, and commissions during her 40 year stay by the forest. She died May 25, 1899.
Throughout her life, Rosa defied all norms. She dressed as a man, entered the male dominated field or art, and was even thought to be romantically linked to Buffalo Bill Cody. This badass girl needed a badass guy! Marie-Rosalie Bonheur will not only be remembered for her independent character, but also her list of international honors. Her accolades, usually reserved only for men are:
-Honorary member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and of the Société des Artistes Belges (1863)
-Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the first woman artist to receive this honor (1865)
-The Cross of San Carlos of Mexico, awarded to her by Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta (1865)
-Membership in the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Antwerp, Belgium (1868)
-Commander’s Cross of the Royal Order of Isabella by Spain’s Alphonso XII (1880)
-Catholic Cross and the Leopold Cross presented by Leopold of Belgium (1880)
-Honorary member of the Royal Academy of Watercolorists of London and Mérite des Beaux-Arts de Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1885)
-Officier de la Légion d’Honneur, the first woman to be honored in this position (1894).
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